The free-from foods market is booming in many parts of the world, with the category widening out to include broader definitions such as dairy, additive, preservative and GM-free.
According to Innova Market Insights, between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of food launches using additive and/or preservative-free claims rose from 10 percent to 13 percent.
Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights said “While claims using the term ‘natural’ have increasingly come under fire for lack of clarity regarding definition, the use of additive-free and preservative-free claims has been able to move forward relatively unhindered.”
“Interest in naturalness is still highly evident, however, and is also reflected in the growing use of GM-free labelling, although it remains relatively limited on a global scale,” Williams said.
Innova Market Insights reports just 2.3 percent of global launches tracked used GM-free labelling in 2013. Snacks, bakery and dairy have the largest number of launches, reflecting the significance of GM (genetically modified) ingredients in sectors using high levels of cereals for food or feed, ahead of meat, fish and eggs, confectionery and ready meals.
Gluten-free lines have continued to see rising availability, with nearly eight percent of product launches recorded in 2013 using a gluten-free positioning, rising to 10 percent in Western Europe and nearly 14 percent in the USA. The growth is partly due to improved labelling regulations, but also to rising awareness of gluten intolerance and the development of more mainstream and good-tasting gluten-free products across a range of food and drinks sectors.
Lactose-free claims has been included in 1.5 percent of launches in 2013, double the amount recorded five years earlier. The dairy market has seen the highest levels of activity, accounting for over one-third of total lactose-free launches, with seven percent of dairy launches using this type of claim.
Managing director of the Australian Wine Institute, Dan Johnson says that while other nations in the biotechnology scene may be willing to take the lead in GM wine production, Australia is happy to take a back seat.
“GM is a big part of most agricultural research that’s done, and that is true of all major agricultural crops and grape growing is no exception,” Johnson told ABC News.
“The Australian wine sector has a very clear position for the use of GM in its industry and that is informed by a range of different market forces…”
Johnson says that while a significant proportion of the Australian wine sector is against the use of GM inputs, it is not an opinion shared by all.
“I would say that there is not a completely uniform view… if you put 100 growers in a room, some would look to embrace new technology whether that is GM or non GM or some other form of technology.
“There are some people that are inherently more innovative than others, but I think in the main, there is still widespread concern of what the use of GM for example would do to export markets, what it might do to the perception of the overall Australian wine category.
"As a result, the wine category doesn't look at that very seriously."
With that in mind, Johnson says that the inclusion of GM inputs in wine production both within Australian and abroad is still a long way off.
“It will still be quite some time till we will see GM type products in wine, if ever. But I think that there are other agricultural crops and indeed other wine industries in the world that might seek to take a lead in the practical implementation of that,” Johnson told ABC News.
“I think that with time, there are a number of ways in which biotechnology can play a massive role in getting higher yields from grapes, to allowing grapes to be grown in areas that perhaps they can’t currently… I think that over time we will start to see those things come through.”
According to the Australian Department of Agriculture, the worldwide adoption of GM crops has been rapidly increasing since their introduction in 1995. At this stage, the only GM crops approved for commercial release in Australia by the Office of gene Technology Regulator are that of cotton and canola.
"(Farmers) want to be able to see that they're getting the best yields they can because hybrids are more expensive to buy than some of the open pollinated systems," he said.
"The flip side to that is they have to manage weeds in the rotation of their cropping system and Roundup gives farmers the opportunity to control weeds that they might not have been able to control otherwise."
Both Tasmania and South Australia have continued to instil a moratorium on GM crops.
The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator will complete a risk assessment plan for the new product, and the Office expects to call for public comment into the crop in July this year.
The landmark case involving Steve Marsh, a Western Australian farmer who has accused his neighbour, Michael Baxter of contaminating his farm with genetically modified canola has wrapped up in the state’s Supreme Court, however the final verdict is not expected to be handed down for another few months.
Marsh lost his organic certification on more than half of his property in 2010 when GM canola allegedly blew down from Baxter’s property.
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard Marsh’s lawyers argue that Baxter demonstrated negligence as he could have reasonably foreseen that GM seeds from his property could spread to Marsh’s organic crops, ABC News reports.
In his defence, Baxter’s lawyers told the court the he was only exercising his right to grow a crop that had been declared safe by the WA government.
The WA state government placed a moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops in 2004, which was then lifted in 2010.
The landmark case has attracted the attention of parties on both sides of the argument.
Marsh’s campaign has been financially backed by Australian not-for-profit, the Safe Food Foundation who have stated that the final decision will either determine a farmer’s right to grow GM free food, or that have that right ‘taken away’.
On the other side of the argument, The Western Australian Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) have placed their support behind Baxter stating that he has doing nothing wrong other than growing a legal crop, and that Marsh is attempting to impose unnecessary conditions on his neighbour by trying to stop him from growing GM crops.
Once again, genetically modified crops are in the news for all the wrong reasons. In Western Australia’s Supreme Court, organic farmer Steve Marsh is suing his neighbour and fellow farmer Michael Baxter for allegedly ruining his crop by contaminating it with GM canola.
Marsh lost his organic certification as a result, and members of the green movement have rallied to his cause. But the case is just the latest episode in a saga that has left scientists like myself bemused at the strength with which the public has been swept up by the anti-GM movement.
We thought we were generating a useful and benign technology, but instead find ourselves portrayed as purveyors of doom and disaster. Where did it all go wrong?
When I entered the field of plant pathology 30 years ago, techniques for genetic manipulation of plants had just been established, and it was clear that plants have genes that protect against disease. It seemed a simple matter to find those genes and express them in crop plants.
It wasn’t quite that simple, but by about 2000 the genetic basis of disease resistance was well understood and techniques to express genes in most crop plants had been established. So why aren’t we now enjoying the benefit of GM disease-resistant plants?
The biggest problem is that public anxiety about genetic modification has stymied progress.
A long history of regulation
Genetic modification is, I believe, unique in the history of science in that its original developers were the first to exercise caution and suggest a moratorium, at the famous Asilomar Conference in 1975. This led to a set of regulations under which we all work still today.
After a few years, the scientists realised that working with genetically modified versions of organisms such as cancer viruses was no more dangerous – and often much less dangerous – than working with the unaltered version. Nonetheless, the regulations have never been relaxed, with the result that today, the regulatory hurdles of GM crop production add tens of millions of dollars to the costs of the research.
Researching the risks
The risks of GM crops have been talked about for 25 years and not a single shred of reliable evidence of significant harm to environment or human health has been found.
I took part in a large European Union project in the 1990s to assess the risks of genes from GM crops spreading through the environment. Dozens of researchers worked for five years to identify issues of concern. They found almost nothing – the conferences were easily the most boring I have ever attended.
Organic crops do not receive anything like to same attention. A US Centres for Disease Control project found that people who eat organic food are eight times more likely to get infected by E. coli. In Germany, 53 people died and many more permanently disabled from eating organic bean sprouts in 2011. Imagine if GM crops were blamed for even one case of the ‘flu.
Controlling our food?
Another accusation levelled at GM crops is that big companies are “controlling our food”, forcing farmers to buy seeds each year from a monopoly supplier. People too easily forget that farmers have a choice of many types of seed. The huge expansion of the area sown to GM suggests that farmers are increasingly happy to use them. Crops from which seeds can’t be resown (for biological and legal reasons), such as maize and canola hybrids, have been around for nearly 100 years.
Organic farmers argue that coexistence is impossible because they receive a premium for their product and that GM contamination destroys their organic status. But this situation arises from the total rejection by the organic movement of all things GM over the past two decades.
Organic certification depends on a set of arbitrary rules; if the rules permitted a small mixture, there would be no case to answer. The organic movement’s total rejection of GM is irrational, especially as GM has reduced pesticide use. Why are they more worried about mixture from a GM crop treated with glyphosate than a conventional crop treated with a less benign herbicide such as triazine?
Call for coexistence
All three cropping systems (conventional, GM and organic) could coexist. This is best illustrated by the case of papaya ring spot virus in Hawaii, where a sustained epidemic of the virus had severely reduced papaya yields.
Since 1995, a GM virus-resistant cultivar has been grown very successfully. Before then, an organic crop would have been unthinkable because the virus was rife. But now, because the virus levels are so low, it is possible to grow organic papaya in among the GM crop.
The anti-GM movement should be more open to considering examples of positive co-existence such as this.
I don’t see this as a question of ignorance or ideology. Instead, I would suggest that it may be a clash with their commercial and employment interests. The anti-GM movement is spearheaded by a handful of national and multinational organisations, some with very large staffs and budgets. As a result the movement is sustained with the help of subscriptions from anxious members of the public.
Unlike scientists, who are trained to listen to arguments and accept the best evidence, the anti-GM multinationals would evidently prefer to spread anxiety rather than listen and work collaboratively with us.
The way forward
How can we resolve this impasse and move on? If handled correctly, GM crops hold great promise to help maximise the production of safe crops with minimal use of scarce resources. There is a case for their use on grounds of better water efficiency, lower greenhouse emissions, and reduced pesticide use.
Here are some more questions for anti-GM campaigners to consider.
Do they oppose the use of pharmaceuticals developed using GM technology, such as insulin and growth hormones? How would they feel about the resurgence of diabetes and dwarfism that would await if we stopped using them?
Would they want to see people die or go blind through vitamin A deficiency, rather than eat Golden Rice? These are troubling questions for many people. But they need to be answered if we are to consider properly how we want science to be harnessed for progress.
I previously consulted for Zeneca (now Syngenta). I research fungicide resistance and receive funding and support for this from GRDC and fungicide companies
Professor Jim Murray from the University of California says that genetically modified livestock is a practical solution to global food security.
Murray says that by altering an animal’s genetic makeup to make it healthier, farmers will be able to produce livestock more efficiently, ABC Rural reports.
“I don’t think it will change the way people farm, but hopefully what we can do with the science is to make animals more efficient, so they take less environmental resources to produce the food,” said Murray.
“Remember, with increasing population in the world, we have to produce more food, but we’re not going to have more water or more land to produce that food on, but more people are going to require more food.”
Considering the limited resources that we have, coupled with the vast environmental impacts associated with livestock production, scientists long have been looking to create a sustainable alternative to meat.
Last year, researchers from the Netherlands created the world’s first test-tube grown meat patty, or ‘vitro meat’ patty as it is otherwise know, by using strands of meat grown from muscle cells taken from a living cow. Lead researcher, University of Maastricht professor, Mark Post hopes that the virto meat will become a sustainable meat option in the future.
"Livestock meat production is not good for the environment, is eventually not going to meet the demands of the world and it's not good for the animals," he said.
The UN have also long raised concerns over the issue of food security and have suggested that Western consumers consider eating insects as they are a viable protein source that is also environmentally friendly, but also has the potential to aid in the battle against obesity.
The Western Australian Supreme Court will today hear what is expected to be a landmark court case on a farmer’s right to produce genetically modified crops.
Steve Marsh is suing neighbouring farmer, Michael Baxter, for damages and loss of income after his property was contaminated with Roundup Ready GM canola that blew over from Baxter’s property, resulting in the loss of his National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia organic certification on 70 percent of his farm.
Marsh has received support from Australian not-for-profit, the Safe Food Foundation, who says that the case has come at a ‘pivotal time globally’ for genetically modified food.
"We are concerned, depending on which way the result goes, that there is going to be a need for legislation," foundation director Scott Kinnear told ABC News.
"Really, what is about to happen is Steve Marsh's right to grow GM-free food will be reinforced or it will be taken away from him, and that equals our right, or the public's right, to eat GM-free food or perhaps not GM-free food into the future.
"We have to fight this as hard as we can. This is a pivotal time globally for GM, this common law case.
"It's a very difficult conundrum that's got to be solved."
On the other side of the coin, The Western Australian Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) have placed their support behind Baxter.
"When you look at the facts, Michael Baxter has done nothing wrong other than grow a legal crop,” John Snook, Chairman of PGA Western Australia told ABC News.
"When you push the alarmism aside, the case is very clear, that Steve Marsh is trying to impose unnecessary conditions on his neighbour and trying to stop him growing GM canola.
"So we feel we are on very principled and solid ground. A legal precedent will be set."
A Western Australian organic farmer who alleges that his farm was contaminated by genetically modified canola will have his case heard at the state Supreme Court next week in what lawyers are calling a ‘landmark case’.
Steve Marsh is suing neighbouring farmer, Michael Baxter, for damages and loss of income after his property was contaminated with Roundup Ready GM canola that blew over from Baxter’s property, resulting in the loss of his National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia organic certification on 70 percent of his farm.
Marsh’s lawyer, Mark Walter from Slater and Gordon said that Marsh’s situation represented a landmark case about a farmer’s right to grow what they choose on their land, The Weekly Times Now reports.
Matthew Cossey, chief executive of CropLife Australia, the Australian subsidiary of agricultural biotechnology company, CropLife International, said that broader issues were connected to this case in regards to Australia’s organic standards which he says are far stricter than the rest of the world.
The case, which was first lodged in the state Supreme Court in 2011, will commence on February 10 and is expected to be heard for 10 days.
Five years after the lifting of Australia’s GM crop moratorium, the acceptance of genetically modified canola remains lacklustre, with genetically modified canola representing just nine percent of the most recent crop.
This is unlike Canada, which has embraced GM canola varieties since their release in 1995, with GM yields representing 55 percent of the total crop just five years after their introduction.
According to weeklytimesnow, uptake of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola has been stagnant since it was approved in 2009 for Victoria and NSW and in 2010 for Western Australia.
Monsanto technology development manager, Tony May, said Australia's slower uptake was because there was a greater herbicide resistance problem, particularly in Western Australia, so growers made decisions based on agronomic factors.
220,401ha of the herbicide resistant canola variety, Roundup Ready canola, was planted across Australia for the crop just harvested, and despite its slow growth, GM canola plantings were up 48 percent from 2010 to 2013.
Victoria planted about 21,323ha of Roundup Ready canola varieties in 2013, five percent of the state’s estimated 400,000ha canola crop. This is up 12 percent on last year, but almost half of the 39,405ha of GM canola planted in 2010.
GM canola crop in NSW fell 22 percent in 2013 to 31,573ha but nationally it was the biggest GM canola crop ever.
Western Australia has seen rapid adoption since 2010, last year planting 167,596ha of Roundup Ready canola – 14 percent of its total crop and up 38 percent from the previous year.
Earlier this month, Tasmania extended indefinitely its moratorium on genetically modified crops and animals as a means of protecting the state’s reputation as a clean food producer
As a means of protecting the state’s reputation as a clean food producer, Tasmania has extended indefinitely its moratorium on genetically modified crops and animals.
According to the ABC, Tasmania is the only state to have a blanket ban on GM organisms, and while the ban was due to expire in November this year, deputy premier Bryan Green said the government wanted to protect the reputation of the state’s food and agricultural exports.
"The status that it gives our state when it comes to brand is so vitally important," he said.
The moratorium will, however, continue to include exemptions for non-commercial scientific trials of GM crops, with a panel of scientists reporting any advances in the field to the government.
Poppy growers are likely to oppose the extension, with the Poppy Growers Association last year claiming that it was prepared to launch legal action if the state government refused to lift the ban.
"We're very confident that there are good grounds to challenge a refusal of the permit to grow GM poppies in Tasmania," Glynn Williams, Tasmanian president of the Poppy Growers Association said.
The state’s beekeepers, however, argued that the discontinuation of the moratorium would significantly compromise access to markets in Asia and Europe., and threatened to enforce a pollination ban if the GM moratorium was lifted.
South Australia is the only mainland state maintaining a ban on genetically modified crop production and trials, recently extending a moratorium until at least 2019.
A new study which was conducted by Deloitte and commissioned by CropLife Australia, states that without the use of approved crop protection products, crucial food crops including carrots, peanuts and even hops would be commercially unviable.
The report titled The Deloitte Access Economics report found that up to 68 percent – equating to $17.6b of Australian agricultural output, can be attributed to the use of crop protection products, and that the sector itself employs up to 9,250 full time equivalent jobs across the nation.
“Our report highlights the multiple contributions the crop protection industry makes to the economy in areas including employment, exports, manufacturing and trade,” said Deloitte Access Economics Partner Steve Brown.
CEO of CropLife Australia Matthew Cossey said that without the use of approved, modern agrichemicals, Australia would essentially be incapable of commercially producing beer, wine and an array of local produce.
“Our grocery bills would be almost twice as expensive and the variety of local food to which we’d have access would be alarmingly narrow,” Said Cossey.
“…This report demonstrates the relevance and importance of the initiatives set out in the Coalition’s current agriculture policy. It is absolutely vital that Australian farmers have access to the most up-to-date, sustainable agricultural chemical products for the sake of our farmers, our food supply and our economy.”
The study comes at a time when the use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides – particularly in relation to genetically modified crops – have come under much debate.
CropLife states that the Tasmanian agricultural sector has suffered a net loss of $4m per year due to the moratorium on genetically modified organisms, and strongly recommends that the moratorium not be renewed.
South Australia is the only mainland state maintaining a ban on genetically modified crop production and trials, extending a moratorium until at least 2019.
According to ABC, government minister Leon Bignell said the state's GM-free status gives producers a competitive advantage in overseas markets, including Japan, and would help protect the state's food and wine industry and allow grain producers to attract higher prices.
"We've got a strong reputation not just around Australia but around the world for producing clean, green premium food and we think having a moratorium on the growing of GM crops really helps us in that end," he said.
The Opposition said if it is to be elected into office next March, it too would maintain the ban, but agriculture spokesman, David Ridgway, said it needed regular review to ensure farmers aren't at a disadvantage.
Tasmania also has a strong reputation for non-GM, clean and green food production, protected under its own moratorium, currently under review and due to expire in November next year.
However poppy growers are prepared to launch legal action if the moratorium is maintained, with Glynn Williams of the Poppy Growers Association arguing that GM poppies would not impact on Tasmania’s food or honey production.
The Philippines may be the first country to approve the commercial production of genetically modified rice.
The controversial ‘golden rice’ has been genetically modified to produce vitamin A in an effort to combat widespread deficiencies of the vitamin in many developing nations.
Anti GM activists attacked one of the golden rice test fields in the Philippines in August last year stating that the GM product is riddled with potentially harmful side effects, and will eventually spread to taint non-GMO crops,Yahoo7 reports.
The Philippine government’s agricultural department together with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) said that despite the vandalism of one of the crops, golden rice has completed the necessary field trials and is now set to undergo tests to determine the safety of the product.
"Golden rice is coming. That is in the pipeline and a lot of the principal development and research has been completed," said Achim Dobermann, deputy director-general of IRRI.
"At the moment, there is no GM rice officially released in any country."
Environmental group Greenpeace has been campaigning against the commercialisation of golden rice stating that effective solutions designed to address vitamin A deficiencies – which can cause blindness and weakened immune systems – are already in place.
"There are already existing solutions and programmes being implemented by the Philippine government to address vitamin A deficiency in the country and these have been in place and are continuing to be effective," Greenpeace campaigner Daniel Ocampo said in a statement.
Depending on the length of the approval process, the International Rice Research Institute says that it could be anywhere between two-three years before the GM seeds are distributed to farmers.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) has assessed an application made by Dow AgroSciences Australia Ltd regarding the introduction of genetically modified soybean, and is now calling for submissions on the application.
Dow AgroSciences is seeking the approval of the genetically modified soybean line DAS-81419-2, which has been developed to resist several lepidopteron pests.
If approved, the Standard 1.5.2 – Food produced using Gene Technology, in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code) would be amended to permit the sale and use of food derived from the GM soybean.
FSANZ has conducted a safety assessment of the soybean line and has stated that no potential public health or safety concerns have been identified.
“Based on the data provided in the present application, and other available information, food derived from soybean line DAS-81419-2 is considered to be as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional soybean cultivars,” reads the FSANZ call for submissions statement.
Poppy growers in Tasmania have said that they are prepared to launch legal action should the state government refuse to lift the ban of GMO crops.
Tasmania holds a strong reputation for non-GM, clean and green food production which has been protected under the moratorium. The moratorium is currently under review as it is due to expire in November next year.
Glynn Williams of the Poppy Growers Association said that poppy growers would consider legal action if the ban is not lifted as they believe that GM poppies would not impact on Tasmania’s food or honey production, ABC Rural reports.
"We're very confident that there are good grounds to challenge a refusal of the permit to grow GM poppies in Tasmania," she said.
The Philippines (also known as the rice-bowl of Southeast Asia) has become a test bed for genetically modified (GM) crops. Proponents argue GM grains and vegetables can improve the life of farmers and malnourished locals.
But is this technical approach the right one? Does it take account of the bigger picture, of a socio-political model that keeps many people in poverty?
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the Philippines. The Philippines’ Court of Appeals struck a blow to proponents of genetically modified crops on May 17 this year, ruling that field trials for genetically modified, pest-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) talong (eggplant) have not yet proved the plants safe for humans and the environment and must stop.
Following the Court of Appeals’ decision, organic farming advocates are also calling for a ban on a genetically modified breed of rice known as Golden Rice.
Golden Rice and Vitamin A deficiency
The force behind Golden Rice is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which has created a “Humanitarian Board” comprising scientists, food security specialists, and representatives from industry, USAID, US Department of Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation.
According to IRRI, malnutrition is common in white rice-eating populations and the Golden Rice Project could constitute a major contribution towards sustainable vitamin A delivery. This vitamin is essential for eye health and the proper functioning of the immune system.
Rice produces beta-carotene in leaves but not in the grain, where the biosynthetic pathway is turned off during plant development. Beta-carotene is important as it’s changed into vitamin A (retinol) in the human body.
In Golden Rice, two genes inserted into the rice genome by genetic engineering restart the carotenoid biosynthetic pathway leading to the production and accumulation of beta-carotene in the grains.
Scientists speak out
As the emotions about the introduction of GMO into rice production run high, a group of activists destroyed a trial GM rice crop in the Philippines on August 8 this year, prompting a strong condemnation from scientists and proponents of GMO.
The authors of an editorial published in the journal Science on September 20 claimed:
protests like this are anti-science; the anti-GMO fever still burns brightly, fanned by electronic gossip and well-organized fear-mongering that profits some individuals and organizations.
And in a letter written to the editor of the Daily Mail, London on February 20 2009 in support of Golden Rice, seven scientists claimed:
the best available evidence supports the conclusion that GM crops are as safe as, or safer than conventional and organic crops. At a time of increasing poverty globally, and reduced food security generally, all possible technologies capable of improving the quantity and quality of food should be embraced.
So, should we believe that one food staple – genetically modified – could resolve Vitamin A deficiency and address development problems?
Creating a bigger problem for farmers
IRRI says Golden Rice seeds will be freely available to poor farmers in the Philippines.
This assertion brings to mind the stories of many small farmers in Africa and South America whose livelihood and independence have been shattered by the harsh conditions imposed by GM seeds suppliers.
Seed companies require farmers to sign contracts that aggressively protect the biotechnology company’s rights to the seeds, significantly limiting the farmers' rights to the purchased seeds. The contracts generally contain a “no saved seed” provision so farmers cannot save or reuse seed from GM crops.
It is company policy for Monsanto, which describes itself as a “sustainable agriculture company”, to sue farmers who breach this provision. In effect, the provision requires growers of GM crops to make an annual purchase of GM seeds.
While the farmers struggle, corporations supplying the GM seeds – and their consultants – are making handsome profits.
What started as a humanitarian endeavour has turned into exploitation.
Not everyone accepts the benefits
Some are sceptical about GMO proponents' claims.
In a recent televised Q&A debate in Australia, Professor David Suzuki told a live audience that “scientists in genetics are no longer open to the possibility of harmful effects – and it is far too early to say what the effects of GMO will be with certainty”.
Like Suzuki, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), based in Ithaca, New York, does not share the view that GMOs are entirely safe.
Given the ever-changing biotechnology and IP environment in which every plant breeding and biotechnology institution operates today, virtually no transfer of germplasm or research is without some degree of risk. As transgenic strategies begin to dominate crop improvement practices, both the risks and rewards of transferring and releasing products by national programs can be expected to rise.
And in contradiction with its early claims, IRRI issued a statement on February 21 2013 clarifying that:
it has not yet been determined whether daily consumption of Golden Rice – genetically-modified rice – does improve the vitamin A status of people who are vitamin A deficient and could therefore reduce related conditions such as night blindness.
Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum
Malnutrition is not merely a health problem; it is also a social problem. It reflects an overall impact of multiple causative factors, and these are also experienced in other developing countries where rice is not a major staple.
Nutritive deficiencies and malnutrition occur because of poverty and lack of purchasing power. Lack of adequate public health systems and education, environmental degradation, social disparity, depletion of fish stocks by large foreign trawlers (operating often illegally with impunity), corruption among local officials and conflicts are some of the underlying reasons.
The already considerable gap between the rich and the poor is rapidly growing. So is the highly unequal distribution of resources, especially in rural areas where the poorest live.
Golden Rice and other GMOs can never fully resolve these underlying issues.
As a human rights advocate – with extensive experience in the area – I can’t help but wonder what future awaits those less fortunate people in the Philippines whose health could now be turned over to the hands of an international scientific community eager to medicate them at the source with genetically modified products.
This is in a country where the church is still denying these same people access to basic contraception. World population and consumption are still growing and some central issues in this discourse are ignored.
Suggesting that GMO will change all people’s lives for the better merely shows how disconnected the proponents of GMO are from the realities on the ground and the needs of the population. What is lacking is the political will and determination to address these socio-political issues, on a local level and internationally.
Jonathan Bogais does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Most readers are aware of the benefits of using vaccines to boost the immune system and prevent infectious disease. Many readers will not be aware of a very different disease prevention tool: supplementing vitamins in crops through genetic modification (GM).
Anti-science opposition to both is rife; to save lives, that opposition has to stop.
The disease-prevention benefits of supplemental vitamin A were accidentally discovered in 1986 by public health scientists. They were working to improve nutrition in the villages of Aceh, Indonesia, where families are heavily dependent on rice as their main source of nutrition.
These scientists discovered that simple supplementation of infant diets with capsules containing beta-carotene (a natural source of vitamin A) reduced childhood death rates by 24%.
White rice is a very poor source of vitamin A, so the people of Aceh (like millions of poorer people in large regions of the world) suffered from vitamin A deficiency. This impaired proper development of their biological defences against infection.
We now better understand vitamin A deficiency as a disease of poverty and poor diet, responsible for near two million preventable deaths annually. It is mostly children under the age of five and women who are affected.
Many other studies carried out in several Asian, African and Latin American countries reveal the health benefits of beta-carotene supplementation in the diets of people subsisting on vitamin A-deficient staple foods.
Small wonder then that scientists internationally were outraged at the recent wanton sabotage of field trials to evaluate new varieties of rice called Golden Rice. This rice is genetically modified to contain nutritionally beneficial levels of beta-carotene.
In an editorial in the journal Science last week, prominent scientific leaders, including three Nobel prize winners, expressed their dismay and outrage at unethical anti-scientific efforts to prevent introduction of Golden Rice to smallholder farmers in the Philippines:
If ever there was a clear-cut cause for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other non-governmental organisations, as well as by individuals, against Golden Rice.
Trenchant opposition to vaccines, and opposition to genetically modified crops, are examples of the disturbing and strong anti-scientific sentiment in many modern countries. They share some common features.
Both movements flourish among those who reject mainstream science. They rest on misuse and misinterpretation of badly designed experiments, such as those taken to falsely indicate that mercury preservatives in vaccines cause autism.
They include false detection of proteins from GM plants in tissues of pregnant women using invalid protein measurements.
They flourish in news media, which report ill-founded comments. Examples include British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s disastrous 1998 press conference about the measles vaccine, and the anti-GM Safe Food Foundation’s press releases about CSIRO’s genetically modified wheat.
Conspiracy theory abounds in both movements. Anti-GM extremists think support for GM crops results from money by Monsanto. Anti-vaccine true believers say support for vaccines among public health professionals is fuelled by money from manufacturer Merck.
In that sense, both the anti-vaccine and anti-GM extremists are anti-science. Where they part company is in the willingness of anti-GM extremists to actively sabotage and destroy legal scientific experiments designed to address exactly the questions to which activists demand answers.
Even anti-GM activists who profess to respect the scientific method pick and choose which scientific-sounding claims to accept, depending on whether they are compatible with their own personal cultural beliefs and social affiliations.
The hundreds of studies unpinning GM crop safety are ignored. The few studies raising questions about GM crops, almost invariably of questionable quality, are the sole focus of activist attention.
Jessa Latona, the young woman convicted of sabotaging the CSIRO GM wheat trials said that she is
a huge fan of what the CSIRO does in many areas, and particularly on climate change and … yes … but I believe that not all science is equal.
This cultural bias about which science is acceptable is at the root of now considerable harm being caused by unscientific rejection of GM crops and vaccines. Nutrient fortified crops and vaccines can save lives if they are given a fair opportunity.
Anti-scientific opposition to vaccines is promoting the re-emergence of diseases such as measles and whooping cough in developed countries such as the USA and United Kingdom, but anti-scientific opposition to GM crops is largely hurting developing countries.
It is denying them much needed opportunities for improvements in health and human welfare, including by reducing risky pesticide use.
Some may say that the movements cause little harm, and that a precautionary approach is needed to prevent harm.
But the history of the anti-vaccine movement, spelt out marvellously in several books by paediatrician Paul Offit and journalist Seth Mnookin, underlies the fallacy of this attitude.
As Paul Offit says in relation to people against vaccination:
doing nothing is doing something.
Doing nothing about vitamin and micronutrient-fortified staple foods in the face of widespread deficiencies in the staple diets of many developing countries is condemning many people to disease-impoverished and tragically shortened lives.
David Tribe participates in agricultural projects funded by Australian government agencies. He has no relevant affiliations that might entail a conflict of interest in scientific analysis.
More than 10 years ago, Richard Roush was part of a team that was given $20,000 in total from Monsanto and Bayer in partial support (about 20% of the research budget) for a project on pollen flow in canola. He currently has a grant from the Australian Grains Research and Development Corporation (which is part funded by the Australian government) for risk assessment for GM canola. The GRDC is not opposed to GM crops per se.
Tasmanian beekeepers are fighting to keep the moratorium which prohibits the production of genetically modified foods in the state, and have threatened to instil a pollination ban if the GM moratorium is lifted.
The state of Tasmania holds a strong reputation for non-GM, clean and green food production which has been protected until the moratorium.
Lindsay Bourke, president of the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association said that the discontinuation of the GM ban would compromise access to markets in Asia and Europe, and in addition, the association will refuse to pollinate any GM crops,ABC Rural reports.
"One of the vegetable crops that we pollinate will be devastated, because we won't go anywhere near it," said Bourke.
"We won't go and pollinate if there is a GMO crop alongside that.
"We will go and produce honey."
However Dairy Tas, the peak industry body for Tasmanian dairy farmers, says that the failure to lift the ban would see dairy production in the state at a disadvantage, as competing states which do not have a GMO ban will have access to genetically modified grasses the allegedly produce higher yields and lower inputs.
Executive office of Dairy Tas, Mark Smith says that the final decision should come down to facts based on science.
"The assessment will need to be done by people who can have a good clear objective look at it.
"They need to have a good clear look at the situation, so that we're not driven by fear, misinformation and assumption," he said.
Research proving that the world's first low GI Carisma potato was developed in South Australia will be presented at an international nutrition conference in Spain this week.
The special low GI Carisma potato was developed using natural breeding processes by Virginia market gardener, Frank Mitolo, and Australia's Glycemic Index (GI) Foundation.
The GI Foundation's chief scientific officer, Alan Barclay, said Carisma is the first potato to be internationally certified low GI.
"We have undertaken exhaustive testing using the ISO testing standard and we are satisfied that Carisma is unique. Its Glycemic index of 55 is between 30 percent and 50 percent less than other mainstream potato varieties such as Desiree (74), Russet Burbank (82) and Bintje (94).
"But its other big advantage is its commercial availability. Coles has made it a convenient choice for consumers, and that means it will play a more important role in assisting in the management of diabetes and heart disease," he said.
GI researcher Kai Lin Ek, who works in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Sydney will present a paper on research surrounding the low GI potato at the International Congress of Nutrition in Granada, Spain, held from 15 to 20 September.
"Our research showed that Carisma not only ranked well alongside other potatoes it is also comparable with other low GI foods," Ek said.
"Potatoes tend to get bad press as they are generally classified as a high GI carbohydrate but our research has discovered that Carisma has half the blood glucose response compared to other potato varieties.
"It has a similar GI to pastas all of which are usually classified as low GI foods."
Frank Mitolo, managing director of The Mitolo Group, an onion and potato packing company in South Australia, said Carisma was naturally bred using a process where positive characteristics were selected and combined.
"We thought this new variety had less starch but was still a good all purpose potato for boiling, roasting and mashing," he said.
"The tests confirmed that we had something special and it then took a few years to build up the volumes so we could distribute it to a major supermarket chain.
"The partnership with Coles has been excellent. They can see the benefits of having a low GI alternative positioned alongside other potatoes and we have invested in the packaging to make it easy for the consumer to choose."
Adam Blight, from Monsanto Australia’s corporate affairs department told The Land that the despite the decision to pull the pending applications, the company will not be exiting out of Europe entirely.
“We will continue to focus on importing biotech crops into the EU, which is a huge importer of GM grains, which will accelerate adoption of GM crops in other parts of the world,” said Blight.
Europe imports GM grain predominately to feed livestock. Current legislation states that all genetically modified products for human consumption must be clearly labelled, with the exception of livestock feed.
Blight also confirmed that Monsanto will continue to invest in its conventional seed business in Europe.
“We will be investing several hundred million dollars in Europe over a decade to expand our conventional seed production and breeding capabilities there,” he said.